One of the biggest design challenges is to understand what the user wants or needs. Including the user in the design process can help us to design better products and services, but also to innovate in ways we never imagined.

Testing and comparing different drawing apps for iPad in one of my previous posts, I detected usability problems and limitations in all cases. How was that possible? Did the designers not notice it? Most applications were excellent, so the cause couldn’t be attributed simply to a “bad design“.

In fact, it is so with the vast majority of products and services. However, since these design “defects” usually don’t affect the functionality of the product/service as a whole, they don’t raise alarms. These are just little details that limit the potential and bother the user.

The origin of most of these small errors and limitations lies in the incompatibility between the designer and users’ points of view: the designer’s inability (or lack of interest) to know how, why and for what users will use the product/service.

The only way to bridge the gap between the designer and the user is to include the user in the design process.

This can be done at three different stages:

  1. At the beginning of the design process, through observation of users behavior and research.
  2. During the design process, with the help of techniques such as co-creation, testing and prototyping. Halfway between this stage and the following, we find demos.
  3. Once the final product/service is launched.

The first two stages are the most optimal to include the user, since this allows us to understand their motivations and avoid major mistakes before launching the product or service.

The user in the innovation process

However, despite paying attention to all the details during the first two stages, users will detect errors and limitations immediately after having launched the product/service. This is a turning point in the design process.

Do we ignore users or take advantage of their potential to improve and innovate?

In my opinion, the worst thing designers can do is to launch a product or service and, from then on, ignore users. All of us, wether we are designers or not, have reacted in the same way when someone has proposed amendments to our work: “They” do not understand it, they don’t use it as they “should”.

Ignoring the problem will not solve anything. If we turn our backs on users, if our products and services don’t meet their needs, they will act in two possible ways: either trying to modify it or looking for a better alternative.

Before this situation, designers have two options: either adapt the product/service to users’ needs or help them improve it.

There are three ways to achieve this:

  1. Closed system: The designer collects and analyzes large amounts of information on the use of the product/service. Depending on the complexity of the data, it is possible to detect patterns and understand the motivations of the user. Data can be collected from a simple satisfaction survey or through a detailed analysis of each of the user’s movements.
  2. Semi-open system: The designer interacts with the user, meeting their proposals and complaints, and modifies the product/service based on their requests. This is something far more interactive than a simple suggestion box, no matter how sophisticated it could be (such as Starbucks). The goal is to have a true exchange of ideas between the designer and the user. Examples of this system are some support forums, such as Wix or WordPress.
  3. Open system: The user is who performs the changes. This is the most complex system, but also the one that has the greatest innovative potential. An example of this is Kinect, a Microsoft’s motion-sensing device created for the Xbox 360 video game console.

I discussed in more detail the Kinect’s case in the article “Lessons Microft Has Learned From Their Innovative Customers”, published in PreScouter Journal. In short, when Microsoft launched Kinect, hackers realized that the USB cable didn’t encrypted data, so Kinect-based applications began to emerge.

Initially, Microsoft disapproved this “improper” use of their product, but soon they changed their attitude, promoting and even encouraging the creation of applications. This has allowed the emergence of great applications for medical use, architecture or education, as you can watch in the next video.